Dante’s, other clubs part of Underground Atlanta’s heydays

Q: I know there has been a lot in the news lately about Underground Atlanta and redeveloping it. I remember Underground Atlanta in its heyday. I remember Lester Maddox had a Pickrick restaurant and there was Dante’s Down the Hatch. Can you look into some of the history of the Underground and name some of the stores and restaurants that were there when it was in its prime?

—Tom Brayton, Sharpsburg

A: Underground Atlanta opened in April 1969 and served as Atlanta’s party center, an alcoholic oasis in a desert of dry counties. Clubs thrived, including Muhlenbrink’s Saloon (William Lee Perryman, who performed as “Piano Red,” played there), Rustler’s Den, Mine Shaft, The Blarney Stone, Ruby Red’s, Scarlet O’Hara and Sgt. Pepper’s.

One of Underground’s most popular restaurants and nightclubs was Dante’s Down the Hatch, a fondue restaurant owned by Dante Stephensen. A former Navy Seal and the “unofficial mayor of Underground,” as described in a 2013 AJC story, he served as the president of Underground’s merchant association.

“In Underground’s heyday in the early 1970s, the crowds squeezing nightly along the narrow streets could hear the rough blues cries of Piano Red booming from the doorway of Muhlenbrink’s Saloon as they entered past the landmark trolley car. Toward the far end, they could pick up the smooth jazz notes of the Paul Mitchell Trio wafting from Dante’s Down the Hatch,” according to a 1985 AJC story.

A notable Underground restaurant owner was former Gov. Lester Maddox, who reopened his Pickrick restaurant there, years after he closed the original location to avoid complying with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He also owned a souvenir shop in Underground in the 1970s.

Other restaurants included Southern cooking at Planters Exchange, burgers and beer at The Bucket Shop, steaks, seafood and Italian fare at Blackstone Inn and Crepes de France, according to AtlantaTimeMachine.com.

Another famous locale was Josephine Tussaud's Wax Museum, which photos and information on AtlantaTimeMachine.com show housed more than 100 life-sized wax figures of Confederate generals, civil rights activists, politicians, movie stars, monsters and European royalty.

In 1972, its most profitable year, an estimated 3.5 million people visited Underground Atlanta, which reported $17 million in sales, the AJC previously reported.

Underground was largely empty by 1980, buffeted by rising street crime and impinging MARTA lines. It was made into a shopping district in 1989. In March 2017, the city of Atlanta’s sale of Underground to WRS Real Estate for $34.6 million was completed.

If you’re new in town or have questions about this special place we call home, ask us! E-mail q&a@ajc.com or call 404-222-2002